Ancient Crete & Minoan Civilization

The Minoan civilization was named after the Greek mythical figure of King Minos, ruler of Crete. Legends still surrounding the earliest past of the Minoan civilization; but for about a hundred years – with the discovery and excavation of the palaces of Knossos, Phaistos (Phaestos) and Malia – more and more evidence of their high culture has been found.  The old Greek mythology mentioned the King Minos, who developed the Crete into powerful naval state, and this was also recorded by Herodotus and Thucydides.

The first major settlements of the Aegean Basin was inhabited between 7 and 6 millennium BC by neolithic people. During the archaeological excavations on the Balkan peninsula, in Asia Minor, and on the islands of the Aegean Archipelago as well as Crete, archaeologists unearthed numerous settlements and graves from the Neolithic Age. In myths, Crete depicted as a cultural center from which many technical findings and certain cults were transmitted to Greece. In addition to myths and ancient Greek historians, important information about Cretan civilization can be found in Egyptian sources. The history of early Cretan Civilization has become famous only after excavation 1893-1931 led by English Archaeologist Sir Arthur John Evans (1851-1941). Arthur Evans had made the periodization of the oldest history of Crete. Evans divided periods into three part and each part was called after the name of the mythological king Minos. Chronological boundaries of these periods were determined by Evans according to the artefact’s unearthed in Mesopotamia and Egypt who origin were from Crete and whose dates had been correctly determined by scientists. Within later correction Evans’ periodization of the Minoan Civilization looks like this:

Early Minoan: First period: 3000-2800 BC
Second period:2800-2500 BC
Third period: 2500-2200 BC
Middle Minoan:  First period: 2200-1750 BC. This period was determined for the whole island and for the sites of Knossos and Phaestos the period lasted until around 2000 BC
Later Minoan:  First period: 1600-1400 BC
Second period: 1450-1400 BC (Only for Knossos archaeological site)
Third period: 1400-1250 BC

According to updated periodization of the ancient Egypt, Early Minoan period started around 2600 BC. Archaeologist dr. Antonis Vasilakis in his book Minoan Crete: From Myth to History made different chronology of the Minoan Civilization: Prepalatial (3500-1900 BC), Protopalatial (1900-1750 BC), Neopalatial (1750-1500 BC) and Postpalatial (1500-1100 BC).  In addition to those scientists, chronology of Minoan civilization was considered by Richard Wyatt Hutchinson, Friedrich Matz and Nikolaos Platon.

The Prepalatial Period of Crete (Early Minoan)

Fresco from the palace of Knossos.
Fresco from palace of Knossos. Photo by Juan Manuel Caicedo Carvajal. Under the license CC BY-SA 2.0

Between 2600 and 1900 BC, the population of Crete constantly increased. Scientist believed that peoples from Asia Minor and Libya in this period went to Crete. During the Copper Age, Cretan people lived in small settlements and they produced metal tools and weapons, and they also produced pottery for household purposes. They were buried into dome tombs which can be still found in the south of the island of Crete. Another innovation from this period was the development of agriculture. Crete was very rich at that time compare to Greece land and islands in the Aegean Sea. That was also evidenced by the grave goods revealed during the excavations of the archaeologists. From the earliest times Crete was famous within its soil fertility. Thanks to rich forests, its soil retained moisture that increased the fertility of the soil.

The inhabitants of Crete were also used the beneficiaries of the sea because they were engaged in fishing and trading with other inhabitants across the sea. Economic development was more pronounced in the eastern part of Crete compared to western part of island. The population of Crete was at that time quite numerous. The most settled area was, around today’s Messara Plain, on the southern coast. Archaeologists had excavated artefact’s originating from Egypt, Cyclades and probably from Syria. Crete also became an intermediary in the Cyprus trade with copper and bronze. At the end of III millennium there was a migration of the population from the eastern part of Crete towards the center of Crete. At that time cities like Knossos, Phaistos (also Phaestos or Festos) and Malia started to develop.

The Protopalatial Crete (Middle Minoan)

From 1900 to 1700 BC there was a significant boom in economy and culture of the Minoan Civilization, because  trade relations in Crete were built up and expanded. During of this period, the palaces of Knossos, Phaistos and Malia were developed rapidly. These palaces were central administrative places; they served as a meeting place for merchants as well for the religious venues. Around the palaces lay the cities, which were very large for that time and it was spread further. Inventory from the graves testifies that the Cretan nobility was quite rich, while the rest of the population lived modestly. This can also be noticed in the development of architecture. The rich people build their houses with distant from each other, while the poorer houses were tightly closed together. The weapons of the Cretan rulers found in Malia also testifies of their wealth because those weapons were decorated with gold, bones from elephant and crystals. Crete at that time were not presented a single state. On the territory of the island there were several independent areas. The wars between those independent regions demanded the creation of defensive fortifications. Many settlements were at that time surrounded by a massive walls. The most powerful were the Cretan rulers of Knossos and Phaistos, while the rulers of Mali and other cities were less important. From the end of XVII century BC there were some events that led to the great destruction of the settlements and royal palaces of Crete. The opinion of some scientists was that the earthquakes were frequent in Crete and they caused the destruction. While the another opinions was that this devastation caused by invasion of the Hyksos. From the other hand probably a tsunami, triggered by a volcanic eruption of Santorini, devastated the land of Minoan Civilization. Soon after the devastation  the Minoans started to rebuild they homes again.

Neopalatial and Postpalatial Crete (Later Minoan)

Map of the Ancient Crete and Greece around 1450 BC by William Sheperd
Map of the Ancient Crete and Greece around 1450 BC. Credit: Historical Atlas by William Shepherd (1923-26), University of Texas at Austin.

In XVI century BC, the destroyed buildings in Crete were rebuilt, enlarged and embellished. The palaces were made even more magnificent and extended by several floors. Especially beautiful frescoes and jewelery come from this period. Compared to other cultures at the same time, it is noticeable that Minoan art contain peaceful scenes of life. According to Herodotus, it seems that from the 15th century the whole island of Crete was united into single state, by the rulers of Knossos. The Minoan civilization expanded their impact to oversea. The Cretan rulers conquer the Cyclades and they managed to settle the land. There was numerous traces (different kind of the artefact’s and traces of letter) that Cretan people also lived on the islands of the Aegean Sea. According to Thucydides king Minos appointed his sons for the rulers so it can be concluded that members of the royal family played a significant role in governing the whole Crete. Having a strong fleet, enabled the Crete to establish their domination at sea. Scenes of their fleet can be found on the decorated dishes.

The main military force on the island itself, was an infantry armed with long spears, arches, knives and swords. The basis of the Cretan economy was agriculture but their inhabitants engaged in cattle breeding and fishing. In the foreign policy of Crete, his powerful neighbor in south, Egypt played an important role. The long-standing economic and political connections between Crete and Egypt led to mutual cultural influences. In Cretan art there appeared a whole series of new techniques borrowed from Egyptian art. The Cretan influence in the Nile Valley was especially visible on some artifacts found in the former residence of Pharaoh Akhenaton from the Amarna period of the ancient Egypt.

Around 1450 BC there was another catastrophe in Crete, whose origin was not clear until today. Probably a second major earthquake destroyed the coastline with its tidal wave, but rebellions or an external attack could also be consequence of the decreasing of the Minoan state. Around 1380, the palace of Knossos was destroyed by another earthquake and fire. From the middle of the XII century BC Crete obviously loses its independence and enters under the influence of continental Greece. The end of the Minoan civilization came between 1200 and 1100 BC.

References:

  • Will Durant, The life of Greece, New York 1939,1966.
  • Gae Callender, The Minoans and the Mycenaeans: Aegean society in the bronze age, Oxford 1999.
  • Arthur Evans, The Palace of Minos: A Comparative Account of the Successive Stages of the Early Cretan Civilization as Illustrated by the Discoveries at Knossos,vol 42, part 1, London 1922, 107-109.
  • Andonis Vasilakis, Minoan Crete: From Myth to History, 1999.
  • Struve VV, Kalistov, Drevnjaja Gretsia (Ancient Greece), Moskva 1956.